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Belarus

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Map of Belarus.
Some would argue you don’t have to enter the [museum] to be Back in the BSSR. Streets in the capital are still named after Marx and Engels. A statue of Vladimir Lenin dominates a city centre square. There’s even a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the original Soviet secret policeman and the first statue toppled in Moscow when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991. A metro ride costs 20p. People smoke indoors. Almost no one has tattoos. This feels like a place that is at least one revolution behind the rest of us, maybe more.
—Mark Rice-Oxley, The Guardian.[1]

The Republic of Belarus (Belarusian: Рэспубліка Беларусь), formerly called Byelorussia or Belorussia (both intentional Russian misnomers invented in the early 1900s to delegitimize the contemporaneous Belarusian independence movement) and currently known as Europe's last dictatorship[2] is a depressing post-Soviet country in Eastern Europe known for its historical status as a doormat for invading armies and its current dictatorship under Alexander Lukashenko. Its capital is Minsk, and about 48% of its population is Eastern Orthodox while 41% are atheist. The Belarusians are a Slavic nationality.

Belarus' history is full of invasions. Like, a lot. Despite its size it is one of the flattest countries on earth, and with essentially no natural defenses, making it an especially attractive target for just about anyone with an eye on expanding into new territory. In the Middle Ages it was part of a Slavic state called the Kievan Rus until it got attacked by the Mongols. Then Lithuania moved in to pick up the pieces, and Belarus had to defend itself from invasions by the Russians who wanted it for themselves. After Lithuania came under the rule of Poland, Belarus was finally seized by Russia during that country's partition in 1795. The Russian Empire cracked down on the Belarusian nationality, trying to forcibly turn them into Russians. Then Napoleon Bonaparte launched a destructive invasion, although the Russians managed to fight it off with the help of dysentery and typhus.[3][4]

The Belarusians launched several failed revolts against Russian rule until it was invaded by the German Empire in World War I. During the tumultuous Russian Civil War, it was invaded again by Poland from one side and Soviet Russia from the other. It remained divided between them until the outbreak of World War II, when Joseph Stalin reunited it with help from Nazi Germany. Stalinist oppression escalated, and Nazi Germany betrayed him and launched a horrifically genocidal invasion of their own. Belarus was the hardest-hit Soviet republic, seeing the vast majority of its cities razed to the ground.[5]

The later Soviet period saw more attempts at cultural hegemony and a slow effort to rebuild Belarus. In 1986, Belarus was invaded again, this time by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power disaster in Ukraine. That disaster, combined with the uncovering of Soviet crimes against them, led the republic to join the other Soviet republics in declaring independence in 1991. The 1994 elections brought in the previously unknown Alexander Lukashenko, who promptly started ruling as an authoritarian dictator while dismissing the threat of lingering Chernobyl radiation.[6] As of 2020, the country is experiencing a major protest movement inspired by disputed election results seen to have been rigged to ensure a sixth term for aging strongman Lukashenko.

History[edit]

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Polack, first built 1044.

Kievan Rus[edit]

Belarus as a concept emerged in the 9th century CE under the rule of the loosely-organized Kievan Rus, when the Medieval Slavic state divided its lands between various local nobles.[7] Even before that, the Kievan Rus had been more of a collection of allied principalities than a truly centralized state.

The regional economy was based on primitive shifting agriculture on burned-over forestland, as well as on honey collecting and fur hunting.[8] Eventually, the region's income was supplemented by trade from outside sources, most notably the Byzantine Empire. Trade relations and eventual marriage ties helped Eastern Orthodox Christianity spread throughout the region.

Trade also helped early cities emerge in Belarus, like Polack in 862, Brest in 1019, and Minsk in 1067.[8]

Mongol invasion[edit]

Mongol assault on a Slavic fortress.

After smashing through the rest of Asia, the Mongol Empire under Ögedei Khan showed up in Eastern Europe in 1235 CE to continue their conquests. The Mongol war in Eastern Europe was particularly devastating on the region, and the Mongols destroyed any city that dared refuse them entry.[9] The already decentralized Kievan Rus was totally unprepared to deal with this new threat. The Slavic weakness was only exacerbated when the Mongols stormed around destroying the cities of the various local rulers.

Some Slavic rulers accepted the Mongols as overlords and acted as their tax collectors, a phenomenon particularly common in northern Russia. Money talks. Kiev, the Slavic capital, fell to the Mongols in 1239 and the Mongols razed most of the city to the ground and slaughtered its inhabitants.[9] As they did. Many Belarusian towns were also destroyed and looted during this era of chaos, leaving the region fucked to bits.[10]

Ultimately, the Mongol invasion resulted in the once semi-unified eastern Slavic culture group being carved into a series of much smaller principalities unable to resist the overpowering strength of the Mongols. From then on, Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians developed separately and culturally diverged to a significant degree.[11]

Catholic rule[edit]

Inside the Cathedral of the Holy Name, built under Polish rule.

The Mongol devastation created a power vacuum in Eastern Europe which was filled by one of the only states left standing: Lithuania. Throughout the late 1200s and early 1300s, Lithuania conquered a surprisingly large swathe of Eastern European territory, incorporating most of the Belarusian territory in a manner which was probably peaceful due to Belarus' weakness and desire for protection.[12] Lithuania was closely allied with Poland, an arrangement which, in late 1300s, resulted in Lithuania's conversion to Catholicism. The two allied nations together dominated much of Central and Eastern Europe.

Lithuanian-built castle near Minsk.

By 1386, Poland and Lithuania had become such good pals that they married into each other's dynasties and finally formed a personal union beneath one king.[13] The Poles were dominant in this arrangement, but the Lithuanian nobles had important powers to ensure that their "rights" would be protected against the Polish kings. This was successful enough that it was formalized in the 1569 Union of Lublin that created the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.[14]

Polish-built castle in Mir.

Under Polish rule, various incentives convinced Belarusian nobles to convert to Catholicism and start speaking Polish, but the peasantry kept their own religion and language.[15] This arrangement proved to be acceptable to the Polish overlords, since they didn't really care much about the backwater Belarusian lands so long as they paid tax. Similar to Lithuanian, the Belarusian language was relegated to the role of peasant doggerel, but unlike Lithuanian lacked the cachet of being the most archaic extant Indo-European language. Thus, while Lithuanian eventually regained premier status with the backing of tremendous nationalist fervor, Belarusian in Belarus today is somewhere on a level similar to Irish Gaelic in Ireland; the overwhelming majority of the population speaks Russian, and even Belarusian speakers have little use for it in everyday life.

That changed in 1596 with the Union of Brest, which sought to unite Catholic and Orthodox doctrines by creating a "Uniate" church that would follow Orthodox traditions but teach Catholic doctrine.[16] The peasantry generally opposed this idea and refused to participate, so authorities persecuted the Orthodox Christians in retaliation for defying a compromise state religion.[15] Conditions deteriorated, and the Belarusians rose up in rebellion repeatedly as the Uniate church attempted to confiscate property and assets from the Orthodox. This was a contributing factor to the Commonwealth's decline. Once again, history demonstrates that religious intolerance is a bad policy. Over and over again.

Russian rule[edit]

Palace of Russian Field Marshal Pyotr Rumyantsev in Gomel.

Forced assimilation[edit]

Polish rule ended abruptly in 1795 when the state was partitioned between Russia, Prussia, and Austria.[17] Poland by this point was too weak to fight back.

The Russians attempted to crush Belarusian nationalism and force them to become Russian. To do this, they implemented policies like enforcing a return to Orthodox Christianity, banning the Belarusian language in schools, banning the Latin alphabet, and even banning the name "Belarus".[18] The Russians also imposed heavy taxes, enforced serfdom, and required military service for twenty-five years.[19] At this point, the Belarusians were missing the Poles. Shit.

Napoleonic invasion[edit]

Napoleon's shattered army at the River Berezina.
See the main article on this topic: Napoleon Bonaparte

Belarus was a major battlefield in 1812 as Napoleon attempted to invade Russia with his massive army to punish them for violating their alliance with him. Belarusians were participated in guerrilla actions that played their part in bleeding the French conqueror's army as it pressed deeper into Russian land.[20] The Russians also inflicted destruction of their own on Belarus, using scorched-earth tactics while retreating into Russia to deprive the French of supplies and food.[21] Unfortunately, this deprived the Belarusian people of resources and food as well. Soldiers from Spain and Portugal who had been forced into the French army also tended to desert due to their personal enmity towards Napoleon, and they promptly became robbers and highwaymen who terrorized the Belarusian people even more.[22]

After the total failure of Napoleon to win the war despite taking Moscow, the French had to retreat along the same path they had taken. The land was already stripped bare by the aforementioned activities, meaning that the French army was starving the entire way. Cossacks and partisan fighters also harassed them on the way out. Winter had also set in, leaving the French exposed and freezing. In Belarus, Napoleon met with his worst defeat of all. In the Battle of Berezina, the Russian armies ambushed the French while crossing the river, inflicting enormous casualties.[23] Some 25,000 of Napoleon's troops died in that one battle.[24]

The French left a lot of corpses in Belarus, and many of them likely remain. As recently as 2007, the remains of 224 Napoleonic troops emerged near the River Berezina and were reburied at the request of the French government.[25]

Nationalism and rebellion[edit]

Rebel defeat in the January Uprising.
From under the Russian gallows I am writing to you for the last time. It is sad to leave my native land and you, my dear people… As day and night do not reign together, so also true learning does not go together with Russian slavery. As long as this lies over us, we shall have nothing. There will be no truth, no riches, no learning. They will only drive us like cattle not to our well-being, but to our perdition… Go and fight with the whole people for your human and national rights, for your faith, for your native land. For I say to you from beneath the gallows, my people, you will only then live happily, when no Russian remains over you!
—Kastuś Kalinoŭski, "Letters from Beneath the Gallows", 1864.[26]

Belarus went largely unrewarded for its role in saving Russia from Napoleon. Despite development from the Industrial Revolution benefiting Russia, Belarus still suffered from widespread unemployment and poverty as these benefits left it behind.[27] Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians left the region for either other parts of Russia or even the United States.

Kastuś Kalinoŭski started covertly publishing Mużyckaja prauda (Commoner's truth) in 1862-1863, one of the first mewspapers in Belarusian, arguing for the need to liberate Belarus and the other nationalities of the old Commonwealth from Russian rule.[28] His writings helped inspire the 1863 uprising against Russia, one of the largest that pre-revolutionary Russia had ever faced.[29] Mass public executions and deportations to Siberia eventually forced the rebels to give up their hopes of liberation. Kalinoŭski himself was hanged after writing one last call for revolution against Russia.

Although failed, the events inspired further nationalist sentiments against Russia, particularly in the tumultuous years following Russia's military defeat against Japan in 1905.[27] More peasant uprisings from Belarus were also violently suppressed. Political activity also increased, noted by the formation of the Belarusian Socialist Party and its publication of more covert pamphlets.

WWI German invasion[edit]

German troops occupy Minsk, 1918.
See the main article on this topic: World War I

Belarus was also one of the worst impacted parts of Europe during World War I. Russian forces clamped down fiercely on it with martial law and conscription, as it could not afford disloyalty from one of its main frontiers against the German Empire.[30] Minorities in Belarus, particularly the Jews, suffered during this period; Russia also forcibly deported minorities into the Russian interior or outright massacred them.[31] All of these factors got even worse with the Great Retreat of 1915, in which the Russian army gave up on Poland and started a fighting withdrawal into Belarus while using scorched-earth tactics.[32] The retreat also forced Belarusians out of their homes as they fled from the oncoming German armies.

The Russian government's incompetent economic policies resulted in high food prices, shortages of goods, and many needless deaths.[30] This inspired discontent among all nationalities of the Russian Empire. As the German and Austrian armies advanced through Belarus, they used chemical weapons and mass bombardments against Russian positions, and their soldiers also committed atrocities like murder and mass rape against Belarusian civilians.[33] Very shitty.

Belarusian loyalty towards Russia was always fragile, and the harsh wartime conditions and general stupidity of the Tsarist government caused matters to break down. The February Revolution overtook the Russian capital of Petrograd, resulting in the Tsar's overthrow. State control over Belarus dissolved, and many deserting Belarusian soldiers became criminals and bandits.[33] Due to political differences, no Belarusian government could form beyond a handful of local socialist councils.

After the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin forced the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in which Russia surrendered most of Belarus to German occupation. Much of that territory became the German-administered Ober Ost territory, which was ruled under military occupation.[34] The Germans almost ended up being nicer than the Russians, as they encouraged Belarusian nationalism and allowed schools to open.[33] Unfortunately, the defeat and withdrawal of Germany caused more problems.

Polish-Soviet battleground and partition[edit]

Minsk in ruins during the Polish-Soviet War.

After the liberation of Poland, it fought to resist the Bolshevik advance and expand its borders at the expense of Belarus. Belarus itself became a battleground between the two nations, as both sides fought to control its resources. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks forcibly dissolved the nascent democratic Belorussian National Republic and instead created the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic.[30] This was briefly interrupted by the Polish Operation Minsk, which captured Minsk from the Russians in 1919 after heavy fighting.[35] Repeated Bolshevik crackdowns eroded Belarus' tolerance for them, and repeated attempts to rise up against the Soviets were met with overwhelming brutality from the Reds.[33]

Ruins of Polish-built Bereza-Kartuska concentration camp.

The war functionally ended in a stalemate over Belarus, with the territory being partitioned between Russia and Poland. Minsk became the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which became a founding member of the Soviet Union.

In Poland, the Belarusians were briefly able to experience living in a semi-free society before the Poles cracked down again in 1924. Under the excuse of fighting communism, Polish authorities shut down Belarusian schools and banned publications in the Belarusian language.[36] Belarus just couldn't catch a fucking break. The whole part of Belarus became just a breadbasket for the rest of Poland, and anyone who wasn't farming was unemployed and shit out of luck. In 1926, Poland became a dictatorship under Marshal Józef Pilsudski, and Belarusians who protested were arrested or killed.[36] Poland went so far as to open the Bereza-Kartuska facility in Byaroza to house Belarusian political prisoners, and conditions deteriorated to the point where it's now considered to have been a concentration camp.[37] Poland also unilaterally withdrew from the League of Nations mandate on protecting minorities just so that they could exclude Belarusians from institutions.

Belarus also suffered greatly under the rule of Joseph Stalin, experiencing political repression, purges, and famine. Stalin also resumed Russia's policy of trying to forcibly assimilate Belarusian people into becoming Russian, although his methods tended to be more murderous.[38]

World War II[edit]

Belarusian resistance fighter hanged by the Nazis as a warning.
See the main article on this topic: World War II

Russia occupied the rest of Belarus after Nazi Germany invaded Poland and split it with Russia according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. Ignorant of, or disbelieving the existence of, mass persecutions under Stalin, most Belarusians welcomed the Red Army only to be hit with a face full of oppression.[39] Stalin became even more brutal in his efforts to remodel the political culture of western Belarus. He deported some 300,000 into gulags between September 1939 and June 1941.

When the Nazis invaded in June 1941, the Belarusians greeted them as liberators in the hopes that the Nazis would be better than the Soviets. Instead, it soon became clear that the Nazis intended to destroy the Belarusian race in order to fill the land with Germans. The Holocaust was horrifically brutal and destructive in Belarus, as it was closest part of the Soviet Union to the border with Nazi Germany and was thus one of the places to be occupied by them for the longest. The Nazis killed one in five citizens of Belarus and 90% of its Jewish community.[40]

Belarus was also a hotbed of resistance activity against the Germans. By the end of 1941, about 12,000 people, grouped into 230 partisan units, were fighting the Germans.[41] That number increased to about 374,000 by 1944. Sadly, the country paid heavily for it. During the three years of occupation and resistance warfare, Belarus endured enormous devastation from guerrilla warfare, retaliatory burnings of entire villages by the Germans, mass executions of the Jewish population, and two movements of the front lines through the country.[40]

In 1946, after the Nazis had lost, Belarus was still called "the most devastated territory in the world."[42]

Soviet rule[edit]

Stalin monument in Minsk, 1952.

Cultural persecution[edit]

After reoccupying Belarus, Stalin decided to have his revenge on the republic since many of its citizens had tried to collaborate with the enemy. He ordered sweeping purges and mass deportations of those who had spent the war in slave labor and prison camps in Germany, and who had become "ideologically contaminated" in Stalin's view. The Soviets also persecuted anyone accused of feeling Belarusian nationalism.[43] Stalin then set about implementing an intensified policy of "Russification". He purged Belarusians from government positions and filled them all with Russians, then suppressed Belarusian culture and banned the language from use in institutions and schools. Basically the same old depressing-ass story.

The persecution continued under Nikita Khrushchev, who infamously stated, "The sooner we all start speaking Russian, the faster we shall build communism."[43] Resistance to the program was met with arrests and official harassment.

Chernobyl disaster[edit]

Border between the Ukraine exclusion zone and the Belarus exclusion zone.
See the main article on this topic: Chernobyl
The Nazis took three years to destroy 619 Belarusian villages during the Second World War; Chernobyl made 485 villages uninhabitable in hours.
—Michael Harris, Dissent Magazine.[44]

In 1986, Belarus was hit by yet another disaster thanks to the Soviet authorities. The nuclear power plant that exploded thanks to Soviet incompetence did so in the far north of Ukraine, a scant six miles south of Belarus' southern border.[45] 70% of the fallout from the disaster blew north into Belarus, contaminating at least one-fifth of its best farmland.[46] Significant contamination was found in two-thirds of Belarus' land, containing huge numbers of people.[45] Hundreds of thousands of them had to be evacuated.

Even worse was and is the Soviet regime's response to the crisis. Authorities told Belarusians to carry on as normal, and Mikhail Gorbachev downplayed the issue for weeks.[47] Even then, government recognition of the disaster came under intense international scrutiny and involved as little response as possible. Schools and businesses stayed open despite the deadly threat of radioactive dust.

The consequences of the disaster lingered for a long time after and still haunt Belarus to this day. Food in the republic became extremely expensive since it had to be checked for contamination, and lingering radiation caused birth problems and cancers.[46]

Finding mass graves[edit]

Anti-Soviet rally near the Kurapaty mass graves.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became premier of the Soviet Union and began his perestroika openness policy, he probably never imagined the problems it would cause in Belarus. First, the full extent of the Chernobyl disaster became apparent to the people, inspiring much higher levels of political consciousness from people who abruptly realized that government incompetence has consequences.[48]

Then Belarusians found a bunch of literal dead bodies.

In 1988, Belarusian historians discovered a series of mass graves outside Minsk in a site called Kurapaty containing an estimated 250,000 corpses.[49] It didn't take long for people to realize that these graves were filled with the victims of Joseph Stalin, who had been led into the woods near Minsk and shot in droves. This discovery fueled anti-government sentiments, culminating in a rally of 10,000 people that had to be dispersed by riot police.[48] These events inspired the formation of the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), a political organization calling for independence from the Soviet Union.

Independence[edit]

Signing the Belovezha Accords in Belarus.

Unfortunately, even literal fucking dead bodies couldn't quite break the inertia of political apathy. It also didn't help that the year 1990 saw the Belarus Supreme Soviet get filled with even more crusty communist conservatives who were instinctively hostile to any hints of reform. The vast majority of the Belarusian population also voted to keep the Soviet Union in the March 1990 referendum on preserving the Soviet Union.

It was ultimately the Russian example that got things moving. Under the charismatic leadership of Russian Boris Yeltsin, the Russian SSR voted to establish its sovereignty in 1990, meaning that it would place its own interests above the Soviet Union's. Belarus reluctantly followed suit two weeks later, if only to ensure that they would be on the winning side of history.[48]

A worker's strike movement in 1991 also broke the pall of political stagnation. The demands were mostly economic, calling for higher wages and cancellation of a new sales tax, but they broke Belarus' reputation as the Soviet republic most successfully stomped into silence.[48]

Following the August 1991 coup by communist hardliners against Gorby and rapid declarations of independence by Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine, the Supreme Soviet in Minsk followed suit after seeing that all the nails were in the USSR's coffin.[50] The Supreme Soviet then forced the resignation of its own chairman, Mikalay Dzyemyantsyey, for siding with the coup leaders and replaced him with his deputy, Stanislaw Shushkyevich.[50]

It was in Belarus itself that leaders from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed the Belovezha Accords that dissolved the Soviet Union.[51]

Lukashenko regime[edit]

Alexander Lukashenko, dictator dipshit.

The first elected leaders of the newly independent Belarus were ridiculously corrupt, leading to widespread discontent, and as a result the 1994 elections for the presidency of Belarus saw the dark horse candidate Alexander LukashenkoWikipedia take power. While portraying himself as a nationalist and corruption fighter, he instead locked the republic in the past by retaining much of the old Soviet power structure. He transformed Belarus into his personal fiefdom by imprisoning or otherwise suppressing most of his potential rivals and maintaining strong state control of the economy and the media.[52] By 2020, he was often referred to in Western media as "Europe's last dictator". [53][54] Oh, and he has a terrible porno mustache and a secret police force called the KGB. No, really.[55]

Military show of force during the 2020 protests.

By halting economic reforms, Lukashenko ensured that Belarus would remain a Soviet-style economy. Such an economy could not develop much, and the real surprise was that it lasted. The main reason behind it was support from Russia, which propped up its Slavic brother by purchasing the cheaply made junk products from Belarus in much the same way any other rich country buys cheap junk from other places.[52] Russia also provides cheap oil and natural gas to keep Belarus powered.

Inspired by a poor economy and the increasing evidence that Lukashenko has rigged elections to stay in power, a significant protest movement against him emerged in 2020 under the leadership of opposition figure Sviatlana TsikhanouskayaWikipedia who joined politics after Lukashenko had her husband jailed for blogging.[56] Predictably, Lukashenko responded by unleashing vicious violence against the protesters,[57] which resulted in sanctions from the EU, UK, and US. Predictably, Lukashenko clung to power with the help from an expert at violently suppressing the opposition, Vladimir Putin.[58]

Medical supplies in Minsk

Oh, and Lukashenko responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by doing nothing, claiming that it was just a "psychosis" curable by vodka or a trip to the sauna.[59] Then the dumb bitch caught it. Get fucked, Luka.

In May 2021, Lukashenko made additional headlines around the world when he had the audacity to actually hijack a commercial RyanairWikipedia flight (by falsely telling the pilots that there was a bomb on the plane, and having a military fighter jet "escort" the flight to the airport in Minsk) just to arrest an exiled opposition blogger and activist, Roman ProtasevichWikipedia.[60] The EU and UK immediately responded by banning Belarusian airlines from European skies and telling EU airlines not to fly over Belarus, as well as agreeing to new sanctions.[61] The US has indicated that it is following suit with sanctions.[62]

Government and politics[edit]

Belarus' National Assembly in Minsk, still with a statue of Lenin.

Rubber stamp legislature[edit]

With the exception of the new office of the president, Belarus' political structure has remained almost unchanged since the Soviet days. Legislative power is theoretically vested in the bicameral National Assembly of Belarus, the direct descendant of the Supreme Soviet. In reality, the body has almost no authority whatsoever due to the overwhelming power of the presidency, to the point where it doesn't even have any real say in state spending.[63] The parliament has also been dominated by Lukashenko loyalists since the very beginning. Belarusian MPs have initiated only a handful of laws over the last twenty years, and the body has never rejected a draft law submitted by the president.[64] In fact, not a single member of parliament has ever publicly criticized Lukashenko.

Unjust judiciary[edit]

The judicial system in Belarus also works hard to maintain the Lukashenko dictatorship thanks to his having had a long time as president to stuff it with yes-men. As president Lukashenko also has the power to arbitrarily dismiss judges, directly control finances of the court system, and put political pressure on individual judges.[65] All in all, there is no judicial independence in Belarus whatsoever.

The consequences of this are keenly felt whenever political opposition to Lukashenko dares to arise. Courts like to order people to appear before them on a ridiculously short notice and then jail them for failing to comply.[66] Courts ignore or enable state violence against protesters. Lawyers in Belarus who dare represent opposition figures face strict persecution from the judiciary, being threatened with arbitrary disbarment, being given only a moment's notice for their cases, or being found in contempt and arrested for no good reason.[67]

Fraudulent elections[edit]

Legitimate President Doomed pro-democracy candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in 2020.

United States Republican Party members might want to look to Belarus to see what actual fraudulent elections look like. In the 2020 elections, opposition poll monitors and volunteer poll workers across Belarus reported systemic physical threats, firings, intimidation, and falsified documents all levied by the government to ensure that the vote came out in Lukashenko's favor.[68] Government authorities also spent the weeks before the elections having major opposition members arrested and then arresting or brutalizing the many protesters who emerged in outrage.[69] The Central Election Commission is in Lukashenko's pocket, as is the state media, and the only foreign election observers were from Russia, Azerbaijan, and a few similarly authoritarian regimes.[70] It's no surprise then that Lukashenko was reported by the Central Election Commission to have won a ridiculous 80% of the vote. Fucking please.

The United States and the European Union both denounced the election results as fraudulent and refused to recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate leader.[71] The usual suspects, Vladimir Putin[72] and Xi Jinping[73] congratulated Lukashenko on winning the election, by which they meant successfully rigging it. Shitheads gotta stick together.

This wasn't the first time, of course. All previous elections involving Lukashenko were similarly rigged amid atmospheres of state persecution.[74]

KGB[edit]

Emblem of the Belarus KGB.

The State Security Committee of the Republic of Belarus (Belarusian: Камітэт дзяржаўнай бяспекі) is more frequently known as the KGB. Back in the BSSR! Really. It's one of the few intelligence agencies in the world that kept its Soviet-era name after the downfall of the Soviet Union. It's a relic in more ways than one. The murderous Felix Dzerzhinsky, who founded the Cheka and carried out a state terror campaign during the Russian Civil War, was born in Belarus and is considered a symbol of the nation by Lukashenko.[75] A bust of Dzerzhinsky even sits outside the KGB headquarters in Minsk.[76]

The KGB is Belarus' primary intelligence agency, and like its forebear, its sights are turned inwards rather than outwards. It maintains a "terrorist" watch list that it uses to name and target notable political opponents, especially those who campaign for democracy.[77] The KGB plays a key role in suppressing protest movements. KGB agents often detain and harshly interrogate activists, and they even go so far as to use blackmail to make people rat on other activists.[78] For instance, activist Nasta Daškievič confessed that she had been forced to sign a cooperation agreement in 2011 in exchange for the freedom of her husband Zmitser Daškievič, a former political prisoner.[78] It's an old Soviet tactic, but it seems to work.

Another activist, Maria Kolesnikova, said she was detained by KGB agents who put a bag over her head and threatened to shoot her if she didn't flee the country.[79]

The KGB remains a favorite of Lukashenko, who in August 2020, handed out medals to 300 KGB members for "impeccable service" in shutting down protests.[80]

Anti-Western conspiracy theories[edit]

Lukashenko's core supporters tend to rely on conspiracy theories in order to justify their continued backing of him. Lukashenko has spent almost his entire reign blaming the democratic West for everything bad that happens in Belarus, including its economic decline.[81] Belarusians interviewed by Euro News also expressed fear that Belarus would be contaminated by Western cultural values, leading to "transsexuals marching with their hands clasped in central Minsk."[82] Oh no! Not that!

This only intensified amid the 2020 unrest over the rigged election. Amid anti-Lukashenko protests, Belarus's foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, accused western countries of attempting to sow "chaos and anarchy" in the backwater republic by criticizing Lukashenko.[83] Apparently poor 'Lil Luka has such a thin skin that any mean words about him throw a whole country into bedlam. Who knew? What a bitch.

Flag controversy[edit]

Protests in Minsk, 2020.

Belarus' current flag is based very heavily on the old Belarusian SSR flag that was imposed on it in 1951.[84] The design on the left of the flags are based on woven cloth designs on traditional women's garments. The green is supposed to represent freedom.[84] Prior to the Soviet flag, Belarus had a simple white design with a red horizontal bar through the middle. This was the flag of Belarus on no less than three separate occasions: 1918-1939 (West Belarus), 1942-1944 (Nazi-occupied Belarus) and 1991-1995 (post-Soviet Belarus).[84]

Protesters against Lukashenko adopted the traditional flag of Belarus since one of Lukashenko's first acts upon assuming power was to rig a referendum and have the old flag replaced.[85] The current flag has become the symbol of the Lukashenko regime more than anything else, with it carrying the stigma of the regime's brutality and torture tactics.

Radiation problems and denialism[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Denialism
Don't worry about the strontium-90. It just makes the meat and milk taste better.
There is no danger. How can you be afraid of radiation?
—Nikolai Chubenok, dairy farmer for the Milkavita corporation, 2016.[6]

Belarus to this day feels the lingering effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe. 70% of the fallout from the disaster blew into Belarus, contaminating a huge amount of its territory.[46] Even today, some 2,000,000 Belarussians, including 800,000 children, live in contaminated areas.[44] At least 100,000 people live on land with a radiation level 1,480 times greater than the level typically found on a nuclear bomb test site.[44] Between 1990 and 2000, cases of thyroid cancer in Belarusian adolescents increased by 1,600 percent.[44] Not good.

And yet the radiation threat has been dismissed by the Lukashenko regime in much the same way they dismissed COVID-19. Lukashenko, himself a former collective farm manager, issued an order in 2005 that put most of Belarus' radioactive farmland back into use by state-owned farms.[86] At the time, cattle could be slaughtered for beef, but it was still too dangerous to drink their milk. Prominent Belarusian research scientist Dr. Yuri Bandazhevsky criticized the move as irresponsible, but he was forced to leave the country after being prosecuted.[87]

Not too many years later, the government authorized the sale and production of dairy products including milk and cheese. In 2016, the Associated Press tested milk samples from Belarus and found them to contain dangerous levels of the radioactive isotope strontium-90.[6] The state-run Milkavita dairy company promptly sued the Associated Press on the basis that the story hurt the company's reputation, and Belarus' Supreme Court ruled in their favor and demanded that the Associated Press disavow the story.[88] Utterly fucking insane.

Human rights[edit]

Cops haul away a protester in Minsk.

Freedom of expression and assembly[edit]

As a monstrously authoritarian regime, Belarus hosts one of the worst free speech environments in the world. Freedom House regularly condemns Belarus as a nation which routinely arrests journalists for arbitrary reasons and forces independent media organizations to operate as renegades.[89]

Formalized by a 2008 law, the government has a total state monopoly over information about political, social, and economic affairs.[90] Independent journalists are frequently persecuted under a variety of national laws. Belarus' criminal code, for instance, contains much language defending the "honor and dignity" of government officials.[90] As if 'Lil Luka had either of those things. The government seems to have a special hatred for independent journalists. They frequently come under attack by police forces with rubber bullets and beatings, usually having their equipment smashed too.[91]

The government also controls the only internet provider in the whole country in order to ensure censorship and restrict access to any and all information. Even schools and universities are subject to intense political pressure to toe the government line or else face fines and prosecutions.[90] Protests are also illegal unless they happen with government consent. The government almost never gives consent. In fact, the government frequently likens protest actions to "terrorism" and threatens lethal force.[92]

Police brutality and torture[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Police brutality and Torture
Wounds left by police torture.

Belarusian police have committed horrific acts of violence while suppressing protests and political opposition. Police forces meet protests in riot gear and use tear gas and stun grenades to disperse people while also arresting thousands to be tried and subjected to either heavy fines or imprisonment.[93] That's only the usual violence, though. Police crimes have escalated significantly after the 2020 anti-Luka protests.

In November 2020, police responded to protests in Minsk by sending masked thugs to abduct people, resulting in at least one man being beaten to death.[94] Random abductions in Minsk continued, including a case where a student was dragged into a van for using a cell phone and then had his nose broken before being threatened with rape by truncheon to reveal his phone password.[95] Another young man asked officers not to beat him due to having recently undergone surgery, only to have the officers strip him to find the stitches and then punch him there until the wound reopened.[95]

In prisons, Belarusian authorities have inflicted many horrible methods of torture on political prisoners, including beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks, and even rape.[96] Reported injuries from abuse included broken bones, cracked teeth, skin wounds, electrical burns, brain injuries, and kidney damage.

Mass surveillance[edit]

Minsk protesters try to fight back against Lukashenko.

Belarus is a surveillance security state. Government-owned telecommunications companies eavesdrop on email or phone conversations, tracking the locations of activists, or seizing private information to prosecute or blackmail people.[97] People in Belarus are now afraid to use the phone or email services for fear that the government could be watching everything they say for signs of dissent. National law ensures that this user data is maintained for at least five years and can be accessed at will.

The backbone of the surveillance state is the System of Operative Investigative Measures (SORM), first developed by Russia and now used in Belarus to collect pretty much all telecommunications data in the country.[98] SORM gives authorities direct, remote-control access to all user communications and associated data. By law, all telecom systems in Belarus must be compatible with SORM.

Activists are trying to fight back with help from US-based anti-censorship non-profits, but this effort was destroyed when Donald Trump arbitrarily cut funding to the program despite ongoing crackdowns in 2020.[99] Again, shitheads gotta stick together.

Persecution of Roma[edit]

The Roma are significant minority in Belarus, but they face intense persecution under the Lukashenko regime. Belarusian cops across the country like to round up hundreds of Roma at a time and subject them to beatings, race-based insults, and intimidation without levying any charges.[100] Authorities frequently and without evidence suspect Roma of violating laws against "minor hooliganism" based upon racist preconceptions.

LGBT rights[edit]

LGBT activists, though often shunned by homophobic and transphobic people, have joined the movement against Lukashenko.[101] Discrimination is often extreme in Belarus on a societal level, and Lukashenko's government has traditionally maintained the pretense that LGBT issues don't exist. LGBT legal rights in Belarus are among the worst in Europe. Gay marriage is unrecognized, gay adoption is illegal, and conversion therapy is legal.[102] Employers can also legally discriminate against LGBT individuals. The only nice thing is that homosexuality was decriminalized in 1994, but the country's general attitude is still summed up by Lukashenko's pithy 2012 quote, "It's better to be a dictator than gay."[103]

Gallery[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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